DAVID “FUZE” FIUCZYNSKI HAS LENT his talents to Screaming Headless Torsos, Meshell Ndegeocello, Jack DeJohnette, and others throughout a career that has seen him evolve from a whammy-inflected punk-funk practitioner to a Berklee professor teaching classes in microtonal music. A project with students led to the release of Planet MicroJam [RareNoise]. “Microtonal” conjures serious classical composition or ethnic excursions more often than fun, but with tunes that veer from Zappa-like humor to late-Miles grooves, fun is exactly what Fiuczynski and friends deliver.
What led you to microtonal music?
I was first exposed to it at the New England Conservatory of Music, through the late Joe Maneri. My first reaction was, “This sounds awful. It’s out of tune.” But then I heard a really cool flute and clarinet piece by a student who used the same 72 equally tempered note system as Joe. I didn’t get into microtonal music myself immediately because I wanted to work on more basic stuff, but later I came to it through non-Western music—especially Arabic, Turkish, Indian, Eastern European, and Chinese music. The Muslim call to prayer moved me, and it didn’t line up on my 12 notes per octave ruler. I needed a finer grid.
Are Eastern microtonal notes exact or are they more approximate like traditional blues bends?
Blues artists are actually pretty precise. They will lay it in there over and over. In the Turkish system it is nine notes per whole tone, 54 notes per octave. That’s the theory, but in practice, once you have it down there is room for interpretation. On the way up you push a little, and on the way down you pull a little.
The Arabic scale is quarter-tones, but that is just a grid to explain it. In very crude jazz- speak a Husseini maqam would be Dorian quarter-flat 2, quarter- flat 6. But when interpreting a melody, maybe that 6 is natural on the way up and a quarter- tone flat on the way down. It is just a grid, like a lead sheet. There is a difference between a lead sheet and music.
On your gig with the pianist Hiromi, for example, when you are performing a tune like “Caravan,” how do you decide which microtonal scale to use?
The first chord in “Caravan” is C7b9, which is Mixolydian b6, b9. The Hijaz mode, common throughout the Ottoman Empire, uses a slightly sharp b6 and a slightly sharp b9. Depending on the region, the interval might be smaller. The notes sound like Eastern “blue” notes to me. So if I am playing Hijaz against somebody on a tempered instrument playing a C7b9 chord, I am not doing anything very different from a Delta blues guy bending notes against a piano that is “in tune”—whatever that means.
In some cases I will make up a mode. “En Secreto,” on Planet MicroJam, is not so much microtonal as C7, D7, and E7 chords breathing in quarter-tones instead of half-steps. To solo over that, I made up my own scale: It is Mixolydian with a quarter-sharp 4 and a quarter-flat 6—and when in doubt, some blues.
You are not just playing microtonal scales, you are stacking microtonal chords. How insanely difficult is that to keep in tune?
That’s why I have fret lines. Some guys use guitars with no lines. I am not that good—I have to look. You just play a normal chord and then put your finger in the middle to see what happens.
Were the keyboards on the record playing in altered intonation?
We are compromising by using two key- boards, with the top one a quarter-tone sharp. This allows 24 notes per octave. It is a stretch for the keyboard players, because they have to play lines using two instruments. On the other hand, it’s a good way to slow them down.
When you are playing quarter-tones on fretless guitar along with a violin and a fretless bass, how important is it to match up exactly intonation-wise?
I had a microtonal tune that my students played in fretless guitar lab. I said, “You have to play this in tune.” Well, they didn’t play it in tune and it sounded great. On the other hand, sometimes if two players are not in tune it can sound terrible. You have to start questioning what is really in tune and what isn’t.
Which gear did you use for this project?
I used my Johan Gustavsson double-neck. The top neck is set up for 12 strings but I only use six. I found it too hard to stay in tune with the two sets of strings. It doesn’t have frets—just lines—and is shorter. I was trying to imitate a lute. I use .011 - .050 sets, which on the neck’s 19" scale are a little bit floppier. Also, I do Indian slides [demonstrates sliding his finger quickly up and down a multi-step interval], and on a regular neck it is a long way to go. It is easier to cover more real estate on the shorter scale.
The bottom 7-string neck is fretted in the standard scale. It employs a concept I got from Matte Henderson: The seventh string sits on a fixed bridge and the other six strings are on the tremolo, so I can de-tune the low B string to whatever I want without affecting the other strings. I also have a Camp- bell American guitar that I modified to be 24 tones per octave. I use that for comping on “Sun Song.”
For the most part I used a Carvin Steve Vai Legacy amp on the clean channel, paired with a Vox. The guitar goes through an Ernie Ball volume pedal into Seymour Duncan SFX-03 Twin Tube Classic and Pickup Booster pedals, a Boss DD-5 delay, and a Vox ToneLab EX modeling multi-effects pedal—but my main “effect” is the inflection with which I play the notes.
Do you incorporate microtonality in your work with Jack DeJohnette?
That’s why I got hired. I played one of my rubato, wannabe-Klezmer, Middle Eastern, microtonal, fretless jazz intros at a wedding Jack attended. Afterwards, he came up to me and said, “That’s the sound I have been hearing in my head for a couple of years.” In his band, George Colligan has a microtonal keyboard, and the sax player Rudresh Mahanthappa can definitely go there. There are times when we are completely out of tune, Jack is jamming, and it is awesome.
There is quite a bit of humor in the music. What is your feeling about incorporating humor in “serious” music?
I tell my students that I am about “serious fun.” If you are serious about the music, we will have fun. I want to challenge the audience, but I want people scratching their head a little and shaking their booty a lot.